Thomas, who initially rejected McCarthy’s internship application two decades ago because the intern roster was filled, realized his mistake once he got to know the gregarious Cal State–Bakersfield undergrad, promptly hiring McCarthy as a volunteer, then as a full-time staffer. Thomas, who was widely regarded in the House as a sharp legislative strategist, taught McCarthy how to win in Washington — while keeping your friends. “For one, I learned how crucial it is in this job to make sure you get all of the information, to not rely on second-hand stories,” McCarthy recalls. “Two, I learned that in politics, people make decisions with or without you, so you better find a way to get a seat at that table.”
While he lives and breathes politics these days, McCarthy says that it has not always been the dominant force in his life. From a young age, he says, his ambition was to run his own business. When he was 20 years old, he got his chance after he won $5,000 in the state lottery. With the cash, he opened Kevin O’s Deli, which he owned and operated for a couple years, then sold. “It turned out quite well,” he recalls. “I eventually had enough money to pay my own way through college.” He then self-financed his way through Cal State’s MBA program.
McCarthy firmly believes that those small-business roots have influenced him as he has made his way around the marble halls of Washington. They also serve as a bond with Boehner, who worked at his family’s tavern for years. “I’ve always believed that I was an entrepreneur,” he says. “That’s why I believe in the Republican party. My family was full of Democrats, but I came to the GOP on Day One, because I believed in taking your own risk and reaping your reward. I’ve always believed in the individual, and that entrepreneurial spirit is kind of what has always driven me.”
Following his tenure in Thomas’s office, and at his boss’s urging, McCarthy decided to jump into the arena. In 2000, he was elected to the Kern County Community College District Board. Two years later, he won a seat in the state legislature, where he was quickly elected minority leader. In 2006, following Thomas’s retirement, he was elected to the U.S. House with little opposition.
If one doubts whether McCarthy will keep his cheery, future-focused persona in the House leadership, where bleary-eyed tumult is part of the job description, one need only look to how he handled the whip race last month. Already, McCarthy’s soft power has shown itself. With Boehner and Cantor having taken the top two rungs on the GOP ladder, McCarthy faced early (though unannounced) opposition for the third-ranking slot from Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, the old bull and Boehner ally who chairs the NRCC.
On Election Night, the two men sat together in a windowless room in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, making calls to GOP victors. McCarthy, fully aware of the upcoming leadership race, laughed with Sessions about stories from the campaign season, and took care to praise the Texan in his brief speech before the conference hall of Republican activists. No tension, no whispers, no tie: classic McCarthy. “I never viewed it as a race of me versus Pete,” he says. “It was an open seat, and anybody could run for it. I’m glad it worked out positively.”
Indeed, as I watched McCarthy in action — working the room, pepping up Sessions, with Boehner lingering by the door — I was struck by how easily politics comes to him. He campaigns without noticeably campaigning, networks without networking, beats you without bruising you — the velvet hammer, if anything. Two weeks after their Hyatt exchange, Sessions, without so much as a bad word, dropped out of contention.
“It’s a cheerful persistence,” McCarthy explains as we part ways. To him, being a “happy warrior,” like a certain other California Republican, is not a shtick — it’s his way of keeping things in perspective.
“Look at where we get to perform the job,” he tells me. “Sure, so far, I haven’t had a lot of victories inside of that building, but I feel so privileged to be in that building.
“Every day we’re in session, I go to the staircase between the first and second floor in the Capitol, where the chambers are,” he says. “The steps are worn out; you can feel the groove in your shoes. I walk those stairs and think about what transpired in that room long before I ever got there, and what will continue to transpire there long after I’m gone. To have that ability, and that responsibility, if even for a moment, you’ve got to be happy. You’ve got to be excited about this country, more than anything.”
For weary Republicans, long yearning for a new generation of House leaders to assert themselves, the feeling is mutual.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.